After the Portland Trail Blazers fell to the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, pressure mounted for them to improve on their disappointing 2017-18 campaign. Exciting moments abounded in the regular season—Damian Lillard’s nuclear February, the 13 game winning streak, etc.—but ultimately the Blazers failed to make any sort of noise in the playoffs, when it matters. The Blazers flamed out in such spectacular fashion that it rendered the 49 wins, the third seed in the Western Conference, and the NBA’s Northwest Division championship nearly meaningless.
Regardless of free agency, trades, and the draft, the pressure is on the team to take a step forward this year. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey alluded to this in an interview he gave to ESPN last week at the NBA Draft combine:
“I think this offseason, we shift our focus to playoff-caliber guys, guys that hit the right benchmarks with a body of work that can really perform come April, knowing the rebuild got done quicker than we thought and it’s time to start thinking of playoff success over just whether or not we can or can’t make the playoffs while we’re retooling.”
As someone who has advocated for veterans with playoff experience on this team for a couple of seasons now, I’m happy to hear this. It sounds like Olshey knows that the heat has been turned up a little bit to see some results next year. So what does a successful season in 2018-19 actually look like?
Just like this season, it’s unlikely that Portland will field a team that has a legitimate shot at an NBA title next year. But taking a “championship or bust” attitude is going to leave all but one fan base disappointed every year. If your team has had middling success for an extended period, you’ve got to appreciate the baby steps, but also demand those same steps from your team. It’s rare that a group makes a massive year-over-year leap without extensive free agent additions. Usually growth comes in waves; make the playoffs, reach the second round, and then develop into a contender, fringe or otherwise.
Next season, four years post-LaMarcus Aldridge, anything short of making the second round and having a competitive showing in that series will be a failure. Whether the Blazers can get there with the guys on this roster or not, or if they even have the capability to get the necessary pieces, is irrelevant to me. If they fall in the first round again, they have failed.
Stuck playing the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors in round one? They should’ve earned a better seed in the regular season. Don’t have the flexibility to improve the roster to a necessary degree? Then 2018-19 was a destined to be failure back in July of 2016. No more excuses. It’s not an unreasonable expectation is it? Asking for the team that projects to have the eleventh highest payroll in the league before looking at extending Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis (thank goodness Olshey was able to ship off Allen Crabbe’s deal) to win a couple games in the second round? That seems reasonable.
Basically, these expectations comprise what the Blazers should have accomplished this season. Obviously, they fell well short, but I’m willing to give it another year. If Portland somehow misses the playoffs or flames out in the first round again, it’s time to admit that the “five year rebuild” was a bust and make major changes.
Are you on board for another year with this game plan or has your clock already struck midnight? Share your thoughts on what your criteria is for a successful 2017-18 season!